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Scientific advice to governments

Editors: Sir Peter Gluckman (Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand & Chair, International Network for Government Science Advice) and Professor James Wilsdon (Professor of Research Policy, Department of Politics and Director of Impact and Engagement, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield, UK).

Scope: Scientific advice to governments has never been in greater demand; nor has it been more contested. From climate change to cyber-security, poverty to pandemics, food technologies to fracking, the questions being asked of scientists, engineers and other experts by policymakers, the media and the wider public continue to multiply and increase in complexity. At the same time, the authority and legitimacy of experts are under increasing scrutiny, particularly on controversial topics, such as climate change and genetically modified crops.

This article collection brings together perspectives on the theory, practice and politics of scientific advice that build on the conclusions of the landmark conference in Auckland in August 2014, which led to the creation of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA).

This collection was formally launched at the INGSA summit (September 29-30th, Brussels), organised in partnership with the European Commission.

Interested in contributing a paper for this collection? Read our call for papers.

Related content: Nature's collection of expert comment, news and features on science advice to governments.

All papers submitted to Collections are subject to the journal’s standard editorial criteria and policies. This includes the journal’s policy on competing interests.

Articles

The 2020 Covid-19 pandemic has forced science advisory institutions and processes into an unusually prominent role, and placed their decisions under intense public, political and media scrutiny. In the UK, much of the focus has been on whether the government was too late in implementing its lockdown policy, resulting in thousands of unnecessary deaths. Some experts have argued that this was the result of poor data being fed into epidemiological models in the early days of the pandemic, resulting in inaccurate estimates of the virus’s doubling rate. In this article, I argue that a fuller explanation is provided by an analysis of how the multiple uncertainties arising from poor quality data, a predictable characteristic of an emergency situation, were represented in the advice to decision makers. Epidemiological modelling showed a wide range of credible doubling rates, while the science advice based upon modelling presented a much narrower range of doubling rates. I explain this puzzle by showing how some science advisors were both knowledge producers (through epidemiological models) and knowledge users (through the development of advice), roles associated with different perceptions of scientific uncertainty. This conflation of experts’ roles gave rise to contradictions in the representation of uncertainty over the doubling rate. Role conflation presents a challenge to science advice, and highlights the need for a diversity of expertise, a structured process for selecting experts, and greater clarity regarding the methods by which expert consensus is achieved. The analysis indicates an urgent research agenda that can help strengthen the UK science advice system after Covid-19.

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